The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 614

“Hay Fever” was written in the author’s maturity, though not in his old age. It demonstrates that A. D. Hope, although he is sometimes considered primarily an imitator of eighteenth century poetic technique and a facile satirist, was also an innovator in structure and a lyricist at heart. While he was perhaps indebted to Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift in attitude, he was not in method, for he took numerous liberties in both structure and content that they would not have approved. In place of regular stanzas, the closed couplet, and iambic pentameter, Hope freely intermixed stanza and line lengths and uses iambs, dactyls, trochees, and anapests in lines that vary in length from tetrameters to alexandrines; further, he made use of both single and double rhyme in alternating lines or in lines widely separated; the four stanzas of this poem are in eleven, thirteen, eight, and eleven lines. In fact, this poem shows Hope in a somewhat uncharacteristic light, for he was generally observant of the niceties of Augustan poetic technique.

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The poem opens with the general observation that “Time,” personified as the grim reaper with scythe in hand (a commonplace in art of the Western world as well as in end-of-the-year cartoons), is a mature, skilled workman who is ever alert and at his task of claiming lives, usually without discrimination. The poet expresses his relief that it is not yet his turn to die (though he is “Waiting my turn as he swings”), and then he recalls how he himself learned to use the scythe to harvest lucerne (the Australian term for alfalfa) and hay in his early adolescence. As the neophyte, he took the last position in the row of harvesters, in case he could not keep up with the others or made poor strokes, which could be corrected on the next sweep. This recollection of a youthful apprenticeship conjures up an analogy: The poet sees himself “As though I were Time himself.”

The poem proceeds with detailed recollections of the long-ago summer in Tasmania (the small, southernmost state of Australia) when the neighbors of his father, a Presbyterian minister who owned a small farm, came to harvest his crops and brought with them a scythe with which the young man could learn the skill and thus be inducted into the world of farm men. There is a catalog of the grasses, flowers, and weeds that are cut simultaneously during the harvest—an indication that the good and the bad are harvested indiscriminately, a sort of paradigm of life itself. The catalog is more than a Whitmanesque list; it also reveals a fond recognition of the “still dewy stalks” that, personified, “nod, tremble, and tilt aside.” Then, almost inadvertently, the boy sees a dandelion “cast up a golden eye” at browsing cows, but the boy does not consider the cows’ hay-breath “the smell of death” as the dandelions do.

In the third stanza, as in the first, the point of view moves from that of the omniscient observer to the first person; the boy has become as proficient a harvester as his associates, but he has a poetic response to his task that the others lack: He notes “the sigh/ Of the dying grass like an animal breathing,” identifying with the Other, the object of his scythe. This returns him to the question—both literal and philosophical—“How long can I hold out yet?” The concluding stanza reveals the persona noting the passage of time (“obsolete” scythes have been replaced by harvesting machines). He acknowledges that he has metaphorically “made hay” but has stored consoling memories against the inevitable scythe-stroke of Time; he will “lie still in well-cured hay.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 630

The principal poetic device in “Hay Fever” is the analogy between Time as a reaper and the poet himself as first a literal wielder of a scythe and then as a reaper of the joys of life, “stacked high,” though intermixed with “a thistle or twofor the prick of remorse.” Other figures and tropes abound: Personification is used to make Time more forceful, as when he “takes a pace forward” and swings “from the hip” like a masterful harvester. It is used again in reference to the still, dewy stalks that “nod, tremble and tilt aside” and the dandelion that “casts up a golden eye”; the dying grass sighs, the steel scythe sings. Time drives a harvester.

Metaphors are used throughout the poem. Almost every line uses them, from the initial image of Time’s scythe being honed fine to the last line’s image of lying still in well-cured hay and drifting into sleep (death). Other effective devices are the similitude of a barn stacked high with “good, dry mow” and a brain full of pleasant remembrances, and the statement “I am running with, flooding with, sweat”—an illustration of hyperbole, which occurs sparingly. There are also a few similes of merit: the sigh of dying grass like animal breathing, and romping like a boy in the heap of harvest.

As in much of Hope’s poetry there is evidence that he values those compositional elements that were especially prized in the eighteenth century and that he, as a professor of English, taught: parallelisms, balanced statements, antitheses, trials, and double elements. Accordingly, one reads “new to the game and young at the skill,” “Out of the lucerne patch and into the hay,” and “in his hay, in my day,” among the balanced items. There is an abundance of dyads: “Crumples and falls,” “lucerne and poppies,” “place and pace,” “arrows and bow,” “the grass and the flowers.” Effective triads include “By the sound of the scythes, by the swish and ripple, the sigh/ Of the dying grass,” which also illustrates the author’s penchant for alliteration, particularly sibilance.

In his imagery, Hope makes frequent use of compound adjectives to gain specificity: The dock is red-stemmed, the milk thistle is hollow-stalk, and the oats are self-sown. Not all of the imagery is visual; some is olfactory (“the sweet hay-breath”) and some is auditory (“thin steel crunch” and “the sound of the scythes”). Hope also makes use of kinetic imagery, as in “I snag on a fat-hen clump” and “I set the blade into the grass.”

One characteristic of Hope’s poetry that has frequently been noted is his use of declamation, of unmodified statements. Here one sees ample evidence of this in “the men are here// They have brought a scythe for me. I hold it with pride.// I set the blade into the grass.” Related to declamation as a development device is the inclusion of apothegms, or aphorisms, such as “It is good for a man when he comes to the end of his course/ In the barn of his brain to be able to romp like a boy” and “Time drives a harvester now: he does not depend on the weather.” The effect of these aphorisms is to endow the poet with a philosophic disposition and acuity.

The mere inclusion of these poetic devices would be insufficient to grant merit, but the long, run-on lines and the almost imperceptible shifts in point of view make it appear that they are organic rather than applied like decorations. That is, the poem’s success is in part the result of the rich texture of the prose itself and in part its philosophic content and its stanzaic form. The almost casual, conversational tone, atypical of Hope, adds to the poem’s charm.

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Themes